Behind the Numbers: Apples and Oranges?

The latest DoubleClick Inc. Cross Media Reach Study has caused quite a stir in the industry. The report compares the relative audience reach and ratings of the 25 most popular Internet sites, prime-time TV programs, and consumer magazines across 12 different demographic categories, and while some have said the resulting report is the best thing to happen to online media since the ad server, others see no value in comparing apples with oranges. However, if apples and oranges are the only metrics the buyer has to work with, an effective media fruit salad can be developed using both traditional and innovative measurement techniques, as long as the buyer is aware of what's behind the numbers.

The study shows that the most popular consumer magazines, television episodes, and Internet sites each attract audiences in the millions, but the Internet's most popular sites consistently deliver larger audiences than the most watched television programs and are comparable in reach to popular consumer magazines. The study also shows that consumer magazines on average continue to deliver the highest ratings of the three marketing media, with the most popular titles delivering ratings that are 36% higher than television and the Internet.

One reader of the excerpted report, however, sums up the observations of several others by noting that it compares a website to an individual TV show rather than a network, and that the research implies that if you advertise on Friends you'll receive less reach than if you advertise on Yahoo! Since no one buys a network, nor a like number of impressions on Yahoo!, the research is useless, he says.

Though snippets of research can be misleading, a detailed look at the the study suggests that the report contains viable and valuable conclusions. The study is up-front in pointing out that demographic objectives make a significant difference in media performance satisfaction, and that the period of time measured to capture the average audience for the Internet site is a specific month, whereas for network TV it’s an average minute and for consumer magazines an average issue. In addition, TV audience measurement reflects viewing done only at home, while magazines can be read anywhere and the Internet reaches consumers in the workplace as well as at home.

The report concludes that avoiding comparisons of Internet, TV, and magazine audiences because of the differences in how their audiences are measured is unfounded, especially since these measures are already what media decision makers use every day. In order for media planners to make the best recommendations, the three media types cannot be analyzed in isolation from one another. Side-by-side comparisons such as this are essential as consumer usage of each one evolves. Marketers value each vehicle differently, and no one medium is the right answer. The power comes from the combination of media as it effectively reaches and persuades a consumer.

Michael Donahue, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says, "Traditional agencies and media planners have been searching for a way to evaluate the potential effectiveness of online advertising alongside traditional media," and this report provides an opportunity to do just that.

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